Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Singapore Kids & Bilingualism

It was just a normal discussion. Yet it hit me hard. My belief in bilingualism shattered. Yes, as Singaporeans, we have been ingrained that bilingualism is good, but here in rural Cambodia, I started to realise that bilingualism is not good enough.

In a recent discussion, someone began speaking in English, then the discussion drifted away in Arabic, returned in Malay, before culminating in the Khmer language, with me smiling politely, looking blur. Have you been in a discussion where it was impossible for most participants to understand what was said unless it was translated into a few languages? Our discussion was not a formal event but an informal and common one. 4 languages used in one sitting! Everyone was patient when the language he could not understand was used; he gave his undivided attention.  It was an impressive display of multilingualism.

In my opinion, Singapore should embrace multilingualism, which simply means that the average Singaporean should strive to be able to fluently speak at least 3 languages, not just 2. But this is a difficult order. In fact, those who know the true situation on the ground would think that this is a ridiculous idea. What is the real situation? Aren’t most Singaporeans bilingual, meaning they can fluently speak 2 languages – English and Mother Tongue? Let’s see.

Percentage Of PSLE Students Who Scored C grade & above for Standard English

Percentage Of PSLE Students Who Scored C grade & above for Standard Mother Tongue

For more information, click this link.

From the PSLE statistics, it looks that Singaporeans are effectively bilingual. 90 percent of us can speak English and Mother Tongue rather well. But this is a far cry from the reality. I have met with and taught so many students, Chinese, Indians and Malays, who no longer feel comfortable or fluent in speaking their mother tongues! They prefer speaking in English. An ex-Malay teacher, currently a Malay tuition teacher for the past 2 decades, testified that this phenomenon is indeed true for the Malay community. Very recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong testified that “We need to acknowledge that that we are losing our bilingual competitive edge.” 71% of Chinese families with Primary 1 child/children use English as the main language at home.*

When Singapore first promoted Bilingualism, it was a time when many Singaporeans did not speak English and therefore, it was an encouragement to speak English. Today, it is a different situation. Promoting Bilingualism today means encouraging the young ones to speak their Mother Tongues. This is why it seems crazy when I am suggesting Multilingualism over Bilingualism. Why?

In bilingual Singapore, a significant number of Singaporeans are becoming monolingual. Mastering only the English language, these Singapore students struggle with the mastery of their so-called mother tongue. I use the term “so-called” because the term “mother tongue” refers to the language a person spoke growing up. But in Singapore, it refers to the spoken language of our ethnicity. As a Primary 6 student, I first saw my so-called mother tongue, Malayalam. I highlighted to my teacher that I did not (and still do not) speak Malayalam. However, she insisted that Malayalam was my mother tongue.

Back to that informal discussion, my eyes rested on my new friend with admiration. Having mastered a total of 5 languages (Arabic, Cham, English, Khmer and Malay), he could understand what everyone in the discussion shared. In the job market, he has a clear advantage over the common Cambodian who only knows one language, Khmer. Somehow this prompted me to reflect on the state of affairs in Singapore. Could you imagine the potential we possess as a country if most of us were multilingual? How much more stronger would our economy be if Singaporeans had mastered the many languages of Southeast Asia? Picture a Singaporean businessman who is fluent in English, Mandarin, Malay and another 2 Southeast Asian languages. He is open to many more business opportunities from our neighbouring countries than a businessman who only knows English (with all other factors kept constant of course).

Would this new friend of mine know 5 languages if he were born and educated in Singapore? Perhaps not. Economics and religion drove him to master 5 languages. What factors drive our kids in Singapore to master languages? Are they even driven? Maybe because our kids do not go to bed with a hungry stomach and they live in a peaceful and rich country, maybe such conditions do not produce bilinguals, what more multilinguals.

*This is taken from

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Public Speaking: What Singapore Schools Can Learn From Third World Countries

Singapore is a First World Country, and according to the criteria, it is rightly categorised so. However, it seems that many members of first world countries have become silently arrogant in thinking that they are superior to members of third world countries to the extent that we believe there is nothing to learn from them. We may not want to admit this, but it is true. I was like that too more than a decade ago. We may silently think - “What can Indonesia, Cambodia and other 3rd World Countries possibly teach us? It is we that should teach them and not vice-versa.”

It goes without saying that developing countries have lots to learn from developed countries. But have you asked yourself the reversed question? “What can we learn from third world countries?” Is there anything to learn from them? Well, if you believe that there is nothing to learn from those whose countries and economies are less developed than yours, then you can  spend a lifetime in their countries and learn nothing. But if you consistently ask yourself what you can learn from others, whatever their socio-economic status or ethnicity is, you will be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.

Last week, I visited a school in Kampong Chhnang in Cambodia, which was a two-hour drive from Phnom Penh airport; Abu Bakar Center takes in only boys from Secondary levels onwards.The time of our arrival coincided with the afternoon prayer, and so we performed our Zuhur prayers in the mosque of the school. What followed after amazed me.

A relaxed principal encourages his students to speak impromptu

Ustaz Hassan, the school principal, sat relaxed on a mat, facing the students. Softly, without compulsion or hurry, he invited the students to stand up and speak. These students were new, attending a 1-month orientation programme before starting school officially next month. A student volunteered, took his place in front of the others and spoke in Khmer or Arabic or both. One by one, a total of about 5 or 6 students took the opportunity to speak in the next 10 minutes. In so relaxed a manner, these students were mastering the art of impromptu public speaking. 

Impromptu public speaking is not a joke. To be able to speak without preparation, one needs to feel comfortable and relaxed in front of an audience. Once, I saw Oprah ask Michael Jackson on TV as to how he felt when he stood before a ocean of people during his performance. He answered, “Love”. I thought “panic” and “nervous” would have been better answers, but perhaps Michael was most relaxed on stage. This may be difficult for us to appreciate especially if we fear public speaking.

As the students made their speeches, I remember how conscious Singapore students feel in front the classroom. I have seen this many times. Our students may enrol in Speech and Drama classes, but they are still no match to the poor Indonesians and Cambodians I have met. Perhaps this is why there are few orators among the leadership in Singapore. Perhaps it is time to learn from our neighbouring third world countries what they do different in the classroom. But first, we must have the humility to acknowledge that there is something to learn from everyone, rich or poor.

A student speaking to his friends without prior preparation 

To watch a clip of the impromptu public speaking session, play the video above.

For more information, please click this link.